Today the sun was out, tempting me out into the garden again.
The long cold spell has taken its toll. It does not look like my garden as I know it at this time of year. I have iris leaves turned black and looking more like some exotic grass species. I go around pondering the toll of the freezing weather we have had.
Then I see a friend basking in the sunshine, settled on the frozen remains of my climbing rose “Madame Isaac Pereire”. I am so glad to see her back as the little green tree frogs are very welcome visitors but I have been concerned that the bitter weather had taken its toll on them too.
I spot another one in the well outside our dining room window. The well is a favourite spot and is the haunt of the frogs, newts and lizards. Not such a good place to be if you were an insect, I guess. They are well camouflaged (no pun intended!) against the ferns but often come out when it rains. She is called La Rainette in this area and if I read my favourite website (http://www.herpfrance.com/fr/ ) correctly Hyla arborea in Latin.
The lizards are active in the sunshine and I managed to photograph a little one before it hid in a hole in the wall of the house. Once again I think these must be Podarcis muralis but I am quite happy to be corrected on that. They provide unlimited amusement with their antics, scampering over the patio and walls in the sunshine.
It is the sunshine and warmth that I look forward to. Today I saw a sign that is a sure harbinger of spring. This afternoon I took a walk in the countryside and spotted butterflies. One was brown coloured and more shy, veering off quickly into the woods. The other was more friendly and was happy to warm itself up on the asphalt track – just long enough to get a photograph, a peacock butterfly.
Yesterday I did potter in the garden, I did try to enthuse myself in the many tasks that have to be tackled to clear up after the big freeze and before the spring. However, the afternoon was sunny and as they say over here “it was stronger that me” – I wanted to see the sea.
The slogan of Charente Maritime is “Entre Terre et Mer”, that is between land and sea. I love the countryside, the woods and fields but I would not like to live too far away from the sea.
In half an hour I can be at the Grande Cote and overlook a beautiful sandy beach that extends for miles backed by pine forest right up to La Palmyre a small, mainly tourist town. Yesterday the beach at the Grand Cote had few tourists, their places taken up by a few amateur fishermen using cane and spinning reel. The fish are not abundant here but they might hope to catch a small bass or bream or even a conger eel.
Walking towards St.Palais along the cliff I was satisfied by the sound and the smell of the sea. A seascape does not change so radically as the seasons change in the countryside but it is good to walk by the edge of the Atlantic and touch the edge of the rest of the world.
An oddity of the region are the “carrelet” that can be seen along the coasts here. These little cabins that are connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge have a square fishing net that can be raised and lowered. It appears to be a definitely low-key method of fishing and many people are seduced by these picturesque cabins – finding their little island of tranquillity seemingly in the middle of the sea without putting their foot on a boat. I have been told that the carrelet are a highly prized and expensive purchase used for leisure rather than for commercial fishing. If you are interested in finding out more on carrelet in the region there is an informative web page http://www.pays-royannais-patrimoine.com/themes/peche/les-carrelets-sur-ponton/des-carrelets-et-des-hommes/
St Palais sur Mer is about three and a half to four kilometres along the coast from the Grande Cote. It is a charming little town offering a selection of bars to rest to refresh before setting out on the return journey.
Nearing St Palais I saw some ducks in the shallow waters of the natural harbour. However, after a bit of research I find these birds were not ducks but Brant geese, Branta bernicla or Bernache cravant that over winter in the region.
At last the glacial cold spell is loosing its grip and the thermometer is rising above zero! However, the crisp, icy weather and blue skies has been replaced with a thick cloud covering. Somebody nearby is getting snow. I should be grateful – it could have been worse. Never-the-less I fret for my plants and it will not be for some time before I will be able to count all the damages. I doubt whether my saffron bulbs will return this autumn.
I had always nurtured a desire to grow saffron. I use the saffron to colour and aromatise my rice and the idea to actually produce my own home-grown variety was tantalising. I had never had the time to consecrate to the finer details during my first years battling in the garden, there was just too much to do.
It was when we went on a trip to the Limousin 2008 that I noticed a mention of an exhibition by a saffron producer in a touristic leaflet. I wanted to explore the region and so set of on the hunt for the saffron exhibition. Very little information had been provided but after a visit to the local Mairie where they kindly photocopied a local map I had a better idea of where it might be. Furnished with improved directions I headed off in search of my saffron producer. After some time and having exhausted all possible leads I stopped to ask the only human I had seen since leaving the Mairie. He was tending to something in his field and I approached clutching my tourist brochure and asked him if he knew where the saffron exhibition was that was mentioned in the leaflet. He seemed quite bemused and pointed out to me that it was September. Tourists only come in July and August. I apologised but pointed out that here I was and I was indeed a tourist even if it was September, as he had quite correctly noted. To my surprise I discovered that I was talking to my saffron producer himself and after our initial misunderstanding and realising we were from the Charente-Maritime he kindly invited us to have a private viewing of his exhibition which he kept in his shed next to his house. It was not an extensive collection but the visit was memorable by its warmth and shared interest. As we left he selected six bulbs for me to try in my garden. I was very touched by the gift which increased my determination to try my own saffron plantation.
My bulbs were duly planted on the 5 September 2008 and much to my surprise all produced flowers the following year!
Such a beautiful crop! Watching the purple flowers push through and snipping off the stigmas as they opened is such suitable occupation for a lady gardener. Here, I note, I am fantasising not only of being a gardener but being a lady gardener!
My saffron producer advised me to dig the bulbs up each year and store them in a cool, dry place where they would not be frozen. I forgot, but the following year I was rewarded for my carelessness by an even larger crop of saffron flowers. I assumed that our mild winters allowed the bulbs to be left in the soil and I liked the idea of the leaves enjoying our warm, sunny autumns to provide plenty of energy for more bulbs and flowers in subsequent seasons. I, therefore decided to leave the saffron bulbs in the soil all year round.
The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus ) likes warm, free draining alkaline soil and sunshine, perfect for my garden. However, it takes 500 flowers to produce 3 grams of dried saffron so I am not yet self-sufficient in saffron. Only the three red stigmas are used but they air dry easily if left inside before being stored in a sealed container.
I have been looking forward to my autumn saffron as even from my first harvest of 18 stigmas I was able to make a little saffron rice which I presented with pride to my sister who was visiting. This year I must make a decision. Should I buy more saffron bulbs in August or leave my saffron plantation to chance?
It is still glacial; I am still drawn towards my warm place near the log fire, watching my frozen garden like a stranger, not quite recognising it as mine. It was -12 C this morning, one degree warmer than yesterday. Should I take this as a good sign? The weather forecast predicts warmer temperatures for next week.
Still on the theme of our uninvited visitors, I recall our first encounter just a short while after we had arrived to take up permanent residence here inFrance. It was in the evening and before retiring I decided to make some tea. I rose from the living room and put on the dining room light and froze. A snake was on the floor under my sideboard. Its head was protruding from the one side of the cabinet while its tail was still casually trailing behind and visible from the other end. I did a quick mental calculation – not difficult as I knew my sideboard was 1m30 (4ft 3 ins). The snake was nearly 2 metres long.
We had never had any problem with snakes in our apartment in Aberdeen. I quickly pointed out to my husband that we had a 2 metre snake under our sideboard. He got down on his hands and knees to check this out as the reptile had quickly tucked his head and tail beneath the sideboard. He got up and paused to think as I waited for inspiration.
“Get that book we have on garden animals”, he suggested.
“What the Collins Nature Guide on Garden Animals? The one with the hedgehog on the front? I think not!”
We retired to the living room for further discussion of the usual marital variety while the snake decided to explore, sliding along between floor and wall. My husband was determined that it had to be evicted before we went to bed but the snake was amazingly rapid for something with no legs. He then had the brain wave of hitting the tiles behind him and forcing him to flee from the noise in the direction we wanted. In this way we managed to chase him along the skirting towards the dining room patio doors. Opening the patio doors and banging from both sides we forced him to escape through the open door. He took off across the patio and slid up a stone flower trough. Safe on top of the trough he rose up, hissed viciously and sped off.
This was the first noise he had made so he definitely espoused the idea that the better part of valour is discretion.
Unfortunately, snakes are not well loved or understood in this area. Although most people would identify the snake as a “couleuvre” which is known to be harmless, many would prefer to kill them and ask questions later.
Our snake is still with us. We have not had any inside visits again but we see him outside from time to time and he leaves his shed skin in the outbuilding (cellier) to reassure us that he has not deserted us.
My solitary lapwing is still visiting. He has now trained me to re-hydrate dry puppy food and put this outside the living room door. I hope he appreciates them as much as the other birds do.
The glacial weather continues in this normally clement area of France, it was -13 C this morning at 8 a.m. I am spending more time beside our log burning “insert” – a closed log fire that in addition warms the air by a heat exchange system. I am wondering if it is our house in particular or if all houses have their share of unexpected visitors.
My lapwing makes me think of a summer visitor to the garden who also has an elegant crest – the hoopoe (Upupa epops) or huppe. One in particular, paid us a visit last year – entering via the insert. This is in itself quite a feat as the insert is not open like a normal fireplace but blocked by a heavy metal plate. Returning home one afternoon at the end of April last year we were alerted by a scuttling noise emanating from the insert. When we opened the glass door a hoopoe was perched in the far corner on top of the cinders which luckily dated from some days earlier!
He looked amazingly smart for something that had just come down a chimney. My husband happily took up the challenge to retrieve him and enjoy the rare opportunity to have a hoopoe in his hand.
The hoopoe looks such an exotic bird with its colourful markings and retractable crown feathers. We had often seen them from afar and we were even more impressed with its markings and regal composure when we had the opportunity to view it so closely. Not wishing to cause it distress we quickly released it into the front garden.
He took flight and shook off the inconveniences and affronts of falling down a chimney and being handled by a human with regal aplomb and looked down at us from the telephone wire with the hauteur of regard suitable for such a magnificent bird towards mere earthlings.
During the past few days I have noticed a solitary lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) in our front garden. I found this rather strange as I have only seen them previously in flocks during cold weather in the nearby fields. I admit to having a special fondness for them as they recall my childhood following my father on his fishing trips in the west of Scotland. There too they were in flocks and I loved to hear their distinctive cry which gives them their common name of peewits.
Being unsure of their habits I checked with the RSBP website and sure enough they do flock on farmland and ploughed fields. So what was a single one doing in our garden day after day?
The worrying aspect of this is that his chosen “patch” is just outside our living room door (glass door). He appears to be looking in forlornly from the sub-zero outside while I sit comfortable beside my log fire. It seems as if I am refusing entry to a reticent guest.
I warn myself of the dangers of transferring human emotions to animals with no ability to feel them. After all that patch of the lawn is now clear of snow and I have seen the blackbirds feeding on it so the lapwing must be doing likewise. Then he walks past the window again and stands one leg as if he is trying to warm up the other one.
Last night my husband opened the patio windows at 8 p.m. to clean and upturn the wild birds’ water container so that it would be ready for a re-fill in the morning. He nearly stood on something cowering on the window step. It moved slightly and he thought firstly of a mouse but on further examination it turned out to be a very small bird. Temperatures were under zero and dropping to a forecast -15C.
He brought it inside and it appeared to be a very unhappy wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) with no visible injuries. We could not tell if it was weak because of the extreme weather conditions we have been having or if it had hit the window and was concussed. As an aside the wren is called a Troglodyte mignon in France and I can attest that this one was certainly very mignon.
In any event we could not leave it to be frozen to death. We are particularly fond of our wrens that live in the undergrowth in the border that separates us from our next door neighbour. They usually stay in the back garden but we have seen them visit our feeding station on the front patio outside our dining room window but only on rare occasions.
A rescue box was prepared rapidly. The box is plastic and was lined with newspaper and some softer kitchen paper which could be used as nesting (?) material. I added a little milk bottle top of water and a fat ball. I also soaked some dry puppy food and added that later when it was re-hydrated. We left it alone and heard some movement and taking this as a good sign we put the box in a cool, dark place and hoped for the best.
I could not resist a peek later but could see nothing; it was under the kitchen paper and was either dead or asleep as it was not moving.
In the morning I jumped out of bed (a rare feat these days) and rushed to check on the wren. It was already up and fluttering. The thermometer read -6C outside but it was light and the other birds were cheeping and flying. The sun was coming up and it was going to be a sunny day so it was time to see if the wren could make it on its own.
I lifted the lid and after a few flaps he managed it over the side of the box and made straight for the undergrowth which I had suspected was home to him.
I hope he is all right. He certainly has more chance than being left to be frozen to death or be eaten by a rat.
I checked the empty box. He had not touched the puppy food which had worked well with the injured woodpecker last year but I could not be sure if he had snacked on the fat ball or not. I suppose a wren’s breakfast would not made great inroads into a fat ball.
The cold snap is continuing and as the sub-zero days increase in number I am becoming anxious as to the eventual effect on the plants. They have never been subjected to such a continual cold period which is, as far as the forecasts lead us to believe, to continue.
Some of the plants seem to be resisting the cold well and I impressed by my young magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ). I knew the thick, tough leaves allowed it to take the hot summer sun and could stand a good measure of drought but they appear to be comfortably accepting the sub-zero temperatures as well.
Looking at the photo taken today the leaves seem to be coping well with their first period of prolonged cold.
Last July my little tree produced its first two flowers which surprised me as I had been warned that they took years to flower and I had bought a very young plant.
I checked on Wikipedia and Magnolias are native of the south eastern United States and are not known to be hardy plants, however, the varieties with leaves which are brown coloured underneath are hardier than varieties with light coloured undersides. As there are huge magnolia trees in this region I hope that my little one will not suffer to much damage.
The fruits of my labour in the garden are an incentive whether they are a vase of flowers or new potatoes from the potager. They also maintain a connection with the changing seasons.
Today I noticed I was down to my last eight persimmons. These amazing fruits ripen as winter is coming on and in our area of the Charente Maritime there are huge trees in gardens that look as if they are decorated with red Christmas baubles. Many local people are completely unaware that they are edible and are highly suspicious of these beautiful red fruits.
I had a good crop that I took in before Christmas –still largely unripe- and kept in my unheated utility room. They had the convenient ability to ripen at different speeds and could be sorted, the ripe ones being eaten and the others left for later. My fruit has lasted until February, as long as my Golden Delicious apples – but that is another story.
In addition to the crop of delicious fruit in the winter my kaki tree decorates the front garden giving us shade in the summer.The leaves change into varying hues of red and soft orange in the autumn as can be seen from the picture taken at the end of October.
By 1 November the fruits are yellow and will take another month to turn red attracting the attention of the local birds.